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When Self-Discipline Turns Ashes into Grace

Virginia Alice, author of "HONOR ONE ANOTHER: The ABCs of Embracing Our Spirit Within," writes about social media, wellness, and writing.



When Self-Discipline Turns Ashes into Grace

Hubs and I attended Ash Wednesday Mass yesterday. It’s the first time we’ve attended an Ash Wednesday service together in years. But we have been doing a lot of firsts now that we are retired.

A Little Background

Although we’re both Catholic, hubs was born and raised Catholic, whereas I was born halfway into Catholicism and not raised Catholic. Unknowingly, I was influenced by the Catholic faith, even though my family didn’t practice it. When my daddy would send me with my momma to funerals and weddings when I was little, this simple action would come to influence my life in a big way.

Momma and I didn’t go to church often, but it was often enough to stay with me. I recall the communion rail and hearing the priest give Mass in Latin. And I remember a lot of kneeling.

When I was in my teens, and my family attended a non-denominational faith, I felt awkward just sitting during prayer time. So I started kneeling which, even though she grew up Catholic, embarrassed my momma to no end. Not long after that, I left that church and started church hopping.

Grace is a power that comes in and transforms a moment into something better.

— Caroline Myss

Dating Days & Church

Then, I met hubs.

During our dating days, he made it clear that he'd prayed for a Christian girlfriend. In response, I asked to join him for Mass. At first, he didn’t want me coming with him just to be dating him. But I was certain my life journey involved me learning more about the Catholic faith, and I was happy to join him.

Eventually, I started the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (R.C.I.A.) and became fully Catholic – nine months into our marriage. The moment was a bit melancholy, as hubs had taken a job in Washington state before then and was already relocated, unable to travel back for the ceremony.

I resolved, though, that this journey was about my faith and not his. And so, I embraced the moment as my own celebrating with those of his family members who'd turned out to show their love and support of my decision to become Catholic.

The Sign of Cross

The first time I received ashes on my forehead I felt conspicuous. Being a shy person, introverted, and worried about what others thought of me, the small black glob of ashes felt like a huge stamp blasting to everyone how sinful I'd been. After looking closer at what receiving ashes means, I realized that it's true: from dust we came and to dust we will return. So why not embrace an annual reminder, even if it made me feel self-conscientious?

As every Easter approached, and we participated in the Stations of the Cross on most Fridays of Lent as well as Good Friday, I would continually recall how I felt about receiving ashes on my forehead for the first time – that one outward symbol, a reminder that we are here on this earth only temporarily, and a symbol telling other Catholics, non-denominational Christians, and non-Christians, that I believe in Jesus Christ as my salvation.

As hubs and I sat at Mass this Ash Wednesday, I pondered further how my life would be right now – if I wasn't Christian, if I didn't become Catholic, and if instead I had chosen not to believe in God and turned myself completely away from him. Then, I smiled at all the blessings in my life from practicing my faith in God as a Catholic. In these quiet moments, I realized that the ashes of Ash Wednesday, worn only for a short time, are really signs of grace.

Grace means undeserved kindness. It is the gift of God to man the moment he sees he is unworthy of God’s favor.

— Dwight L. Moody

Grace is a Gift

How many times do we realize how blessed we are? Not only do we have a loving and forgiving God, but we also have a process which reminds us how much we are loved and how much we are forgiven. The Triduum (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter), each year, reminds us of this grace. Christmas reminds us of this grace. And every other Church holiday, including Holy Days, Feast Days, and Saints Days, reminds us of this grace.

And part of receiving a gift is showing appreciation for it. When someone gives us a gift, our hearts swell up with love. We remember how kind and thoughtful they were for thinking of us. This is how it is for me with the gift of grace.

And mostly, for me, in the blackened ashes of Ash Wednesday, I'm reminded that God’s grace is there for the asking and for the choosing. Just as no one can be forced to accept a gift, no one can be forced to accept grace. But grace remains there, nonetheless, waiting for that moment of acceptance.

Self-Discipline Comes into Play

In addition to accepting ashes on Ash Wednesday, many Catholics – myself included – practice giving up something or taking on something as a way of showing sacrifice just as Jesus did for his forty days in the desert. There have been years when it was easy to choose something to give up. And there were years when it wasn’t so easy.

Even though I love jewelry, especially earrings, I found it easy, even a challenge, to make the sacrifice of no outward adornment. But, although I’m not usually a big sweets eater and more of a chips and salsa gal, giving up sweet snacks one year was difficult. Finding the self-discipline to follow through and stay away from M&Ms or a Three Musketeers bar was excruciating, at times.

On years when I have also taken on doing something – either donating to a good cause or volunteering at a food pantry, for instance – it takes discipline to remember to show up. This is, mostly, because life is hectic and filled with more tasks than should be on any person's plate.

Of course, this makes Lent a good time to slow down and focus on the whys of ashes, sacrifice, self-discipline, grace, and salvation.

I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.

— Anne Lamott

The Arrival of Easter

This year, hubs and I will be celebrating more than Lent and Easter together.

When Easter gets here, we – along with every other Catholic across the world – will be experiencing and celebrating how we went from ashes to grace. We will be happy that we made it through Lent with self-discipline and the knowledge, and reminder of ashes, that we are saved. And we will look back on the past forty days as not so bad after all.

Then, as we face the coming year with lightness of heart and the eagerness to be better Christians – and persons in general, we'll find it easier to be kinder, to be more loving, and to be more gracious.

© 2022 Virginia Alice Crawford

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